A New Field of Afro-Latin American Studies. Interview with Alejandro de la Fuente

The Ford Foundation has granted $1.7 million to Harvard’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute (ALARI), a center directed by Cuban-American professor Alejandro de la Fuente. ALARI will formalize collaboration with five other institutions to create a University Consortium of Afro-Latin American Studies, which will be headed by de la Fuente. This was announced recently by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., renowned professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research to which ALARI belongs.

According to Gates, the institutions that make up the Consortium founded by de la Fuente seek to “forever transform the landscape of African Diaspora history and culture studies in Latin America.”

Alejandro de la Fuente is a historian of Latin America and the Caribbean and specializes in the study of race relations and comparative slavery. His work deals with race, slavery, law, art and transatlantic history. He is the author of Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana (2020, co-authored with Ariela J. Gross); Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century (2008); and A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (2001), published in Spanish as Una nación para todos: raza, desigualdad y política en Cuba, 1900-2000 (Madrid, 2001 and Havana, 2014). He is co-editor, with George Reid Andrews, of Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction (2018), and of the Afro-Latin America book series at Cambridge University Press.

De la Fuente is also curator of four major art exhibitions that problematize the subject of race: Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art (2010-2012), Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba (2013-2016), Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present (2017-2022), and El Pasado Mío / My Own Past: Afrodescendant Contributions to Cuban Art, currently at the Cooper Gallery for African and African American Art at Harvard University.

In addition to being a founder of ALARI and chair of the Cuba Studies Programs at David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University, he is also the senior editor of the journal Cuban Studies.

I first met Alejandro de la Fuente in the 2000s, when I was presenting a paper about Ediciones El Puente at a conference of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “It is important that you make this work on El Puente visible,” he told me. His words gave me the confidence and impetus to, indeed, do so. His book Una nación para todos: raza, desigualdad y política en Cuba, 1900-2000, crucial to my chapter on racial dynamics in the 1960s in Cuba in the context of El Puente, had also been crucial to overthrow the false notion that racism had been magically eliminated on the island with the arrival of the Revolution.

In 2010, I invited Alejandro to be a discussant on a panel on racial dynamics in Cuba from the 1960s to the present, along with colleagues Alexandro Campos García, Odette Casamayor and Susan Lord. With his characteristic intellectual generosity, he agreed to do it. We had a fruitful conversation on the topic that summoned us, involving literature, visual arts and social sciences.

Although de la Fuente’s research for most of his academic career has been on Cuba, today his work on race and racism transcends the limits of the Cuban example to include countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. The Consortium he has founded is the best testimony to this.

The importance of his work is difficult to summarize in this brief introduction. De la Fuente has made Afro-Latin American studies visible within the North American academy, which tended to ignore them for many years, or to reduce them to an idea of harmony or “racial democracy,” according to which racism in our countries was minimal or non-existent (Cuba is not the only place where this notion was fabricated).

From a real vocation as a scholar committed to racial justice and diversity, his research is linked to a whole current of “public scholarship” in the United States that puts the tools of knowledge at the service of social activism.

But perhaps de la Fuente’s most important contribution is that of being the creator and systematizer of a new field of research and discipline within this new current of politically committed academia: Afro-Latin American Studies. Recently, we discussed this topic as well as the creation of the Consortium.

How did you come to the creation of a University Consortium of Afro-Latin American Studies? How does your previous work connect to this project, including your extensive research and experience as director of ALARI (Afro-Latin American Research Institute) and with colleagues in Latin America?

I came to Harvard University ten years ago to offer courses on race and racism in Latin America, in the departments of African and African American Studies and History, which are the departments in which I hold chairs. But from the beginning I set out to create a space for the development of those studies, a platform that would serve to empower, support, and propel young producers of knowledge on those topics, the kind of space that I didn’t have when I was young. I have spent a good part of my adult life explaining why I do what I do and why what I study is important. I wanted to create a space in which that question was not possible and from which we could systematize the growing intellectual production on these issues in the region. Hence the Afro-Latin American Research Institute (ALARI), since I also had the good fortune to arrive when the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research was about to be created, under the direction of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who in addition to being a personal friend, is a tireless fighter for the development of Afro-Diasporic studies. And there we began to work, with a group of colleagues and students, in permanent interlocution with knowledge producers from all over the region—a category that includes not only scholars, but activists, community leaders, civil servants, people who are actively involved, from different spaces, in anti-racist agendas—. It was through these exchanges that the networks that sustain the Consortium were built. The Consortium is a milestone in a journey that has been developing for years, through various collaborative projects.

The term “Afro-Latin American” comes from activism and has been used within academia for decades. But ALARI has given it institutional form, systematizing it within the category of “Afro-Latin American Studies.” This foundational gesture perhaps speaks of an imminent need to make visible and articulate previously obliterated areas, or even to dismantle fallacies such as that of a supposed “racial democracy” in Latin America. Why do you think there has been a boom in this topic in recent times? Can you give us a bit of context about the term, its origin and the importance of this new interdisciplinary field of studies of which you are the founder?

You are correct, the term comes from activism, specifically from a group of Afro-Brazilian activists, who in 1977 created the section “Afro-Latino-America” in the São Paulo magazine VERSUS, precisely to highlight the specificities of their demands, which were often ignored by the traditional left. As they said, “Afro-Latin America, and not only Latin America, because it better defines the importance of the African presence in this part of the world.” That presence is at the center of this field of study, which proposes to rethink our region from the perspectives, histories, and contributions of Africans and their descendants. The very way in which we define the region as Latin invisibilizes Africa and the nearly 11 million people who came enslaved to the Western Hemisphere. When one thinks of the region from those experiences and contributions, many things change, including the ways in which we narrate issues such as freedom, citizenship and nation-state formation. The Afro prefix creates enormous opportunities to produce “other” histories of the region. People forget, or prefer to forget, that 75 percent of the people who migrated to what is now Latin America during the colonial period came from Africa. We talk about Spanish or Portuguese colonialism, but we should learn more about the kingdom of the Congo, or how the militarization processes of African states contributed to expand the traffic of enslaved people. At Harvard we have privileged help, as the Department of African and African American Studies teaches 36 African languages.

Activism has not only provided important keys to define this field from the perspective of academia but has been its main driving force. All of the action plans generated by activism over the last thirty years include the transformation of education curricula and the need to create courses, centers and departments dedicated to studying the histories and contributions of Africans and their descendants and to fomenting an academic environment committed to inclusion and racial justice. We seek to respond to these demands.

From left to right: Keila Grinberg, CLAS, University of Pittsburgh; Florencia Guzmán, GEALA, University of Buenos Aires; Alejandro de la Fuente, ALARI, Harvard University; María Elisa Velázquez, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico; Marcia Lima, Afro-CEBRAP, Brazil; Eliana Charrupi Viveros, Centro de Estudios Afrodiásporicos, Universidad ICESI, Colombia (Photo courtesy of Melissa Blackall).

Among the members of the Consortium are countries such as Argentina and Brazil, with diametrically different experiences of racial stratification and racialization. What role does Argentina play in the Consortium, as in this country racial issues are—apparently—less prevalent?

The map of Afro-Latin America is not static: it changes over time. Cities that today we do not associate with African presence, such as Lima, Mexico, or Buenos Aires, were at some point settlements of large African or Afro-descendant populations. By 1800 a third of Buenos Aires’s population was African. What happened to these people? A country like Argentina allows us to ask questions about the supposed disappearance of Afro-descendant populations that do not apply to places like Brazil or Colombia, where the questions are different. We forget, moreover, that in countries like Argentina there are cultural expressions, such as tango, that owe much to the creativity of Africans and their descendants. Moreover, in Argentina there is a working group—the Afro-Latin American Studies Group (GEALA) at the University of Buenos Aires—with which we have collaborated for many years. That group has produced fundamental studies on slavery and racial stratification in the Southern Cone. That is why they are in the Consortium. I could say the same of any of the other groups.

In terms of activism, what are the precedents, objectives and strategies of the University Consortium? What specific forms of activism do you intend to accompany?

One of the first activities organized by ALARI was a meeting with historical leaders of the Afro-descendant movement, a meeting that I organized in collaboration with my colleagues Silvia Valero, from the University of Cartagena and Alejandro Campos García. It was an opportunity to learn and to hear suggestions about areas where knowledge production was necessary, even urgent. Later, ALARI organized similar consultation meetings with Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Colombian activists to define our research and teaching agendas in a permanent dialogue with social movements. These movements emphasize different agendas, issues, problems, and points of view. Such agendas, which eventually find their way into our classrooms, range from environmental issues to various forms of violence—police, gender, sexuality or religion-related—that affect Afro-descendant communities. In addition, many young academics in this field are producing knowledge from their communities, doing work, including doctoral dissertations, from these creative spaces. It is a very interesting movement from an intellectual point of view because it destroys the barriers that traditionally separated the academy and the communities.

One of the great countries of the Afro-Latin American diaspora is absent from the Consortium. Colombia and Brazil are there, but not Cuba. What is the reason for this absence?

You can imagine that it is personally painful for me that Cuba is not represented. But in Cuba there are today formidable structural barriers to the production of knowledge and to intellectual activity in general. Between 2015 and 2016 I tried to create on the island the necessary conditions for a more lasting collaboration, similar to those I was fomenting in other countries in the region. I invited leading researchers from Brazil, Colombia and the United States to Cuba to offer seminars on research methodologies on racism and racial inequality. Among them was sociologist Marcia Lima, who heads Brazil’s Afro-CEBRAP nucleus, now in the Consortium. Seminars with young people, seeds for better futures. But organizing each seminar was torture, despite the goodwill of some friends, because the security apparatus, whose main function is to fabricate enemies and ghosts (otherwise they are out of a job), obstructed everything. They demanded such ridiculous things as not mentioning my name in the sessions and more than one participant was told that it was not a good idea to work on a topic such as racism, which they presented as something alien to the Cuban reality, as an import from the United States. For our counterparts there it was clearly a great challenge to carry out these activities. What in any other country in the region was a normal academic activity, carried out with the enthusiastic support of the institutions involved (which is why they are now part of the Consortium), in Cuba it was a challenge. These activities were perceived by the bureaucrats in office as an affront to national security. The production of knowledge and academic work requires minimum spaces of autonomy, creativity and freedom. I would like to be wrong, but I do not see those spaces in Cuba.

Based on this perception, what do you think is the state of knowledge production in Afro-Latin American studies in Cuba?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by referring to one of our initiatives: the Mark Claster Mamolen workshop for doctoral theses on Afro-Latin American studies. This workshop annually invites advanced doctoral students from around the world to submit their dissertation proposals to Harvard, as long as they address issues related to race, slavery, or processes of racial stratification in Latin America. Students can apply in Spanish, English, or Portuguese and sessions are held in a combination of these languages. In the six editions of the workshop, we have received 946 applications from students and universities from all over the region, as well as Europe, Africa and the United States. We are talking about more than 900 students who are completing a doctorate in Afro-Latin American studies. That is the future of the field, with contributions from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, history, art history, literature, cultural studies, gender studies, environmental studies, political science, sociology, public health, law, philosophy… From Cuba? Hardly any. We have had Cuban students, but they come from foreign universities. And that is the other huge problem facing Cuban academia: young people are leaving, there is a permanent and sustained drain of talent. When one reviews the publications on these issues at the regional level, Cuba barely appears. The lack of freedoms ends up taking its toll, it is an incubator for mediocrity.

Florencia Guzman, Alejandro de la Fuente and María Elisa Velázquez (Photo: courtesy of Melissa Blackall).

What is the difference between the tradition of Latin American studies, children of the Cold War, and the current trend of Afro-Latin American studies?

They are very different genealogies. Latin American studies in the United States is a product of the Cold War and the anxieties and geopolitical concerns of the American government in the postwar period, especially after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. It is a field in which the central concerns were issues of development, political stability, class struggle, etc. The field of Afro-Latin American studies is a product of activism and of demands for racial justice and inclusion. Some of its central themes connect with Latin American studies, such as democracy, but from the experiences and needs of populations and communities that have been racialized as subaltern. In addition, Afro-Latin American studies focuses as a field on categories (race) and long-term processes (white supremacy) that transcend capitalism and socialism, so central to Latin American studies.

You arrive at Harvard as a scholar of racial stratification in Cuba and end up promoting the development of the field and ALARI, Latin Americanizing the subject and moving it beyond Cuba. What other reasons (besides those you already mentioned regarding the limits imposed by totalitarianism) are there for this?

Almost two thirds of the Africans who arrived in the hemisphere did so in the colonies of Spain and Portugal. It was in those territories, moreover, that slavery had the greatest longevity, given that Cuba and Brazil were the last countries to abolish slavery. Many of the processes that the field studies are best understood from a regional perspective rather than from the teleologies of the nation state, which often make Afro-descendants and their contributions invisible. But having studied the Cuban case allowed me to develop very important tools, because it is a case that demonstrates the possibilities and limitations of universal policies on racial differences and stratification. Cuba was once a laboratory of racial justice, but other countries in the region, such as Brazil and Colombia, have occupied that place in the last twenty or thirty years.

At the opening of the second ALARI conference on Afro-Latin American Studies, when you announced the generous $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation, you said that the Consortium will allow the institutions to “advance the field of Afro-Latin American Studies, as well as open up opportunities for students and faculty alike.” Can you anticipate what kinds of collaborations and opportunities this initiative will offer?

For starters, we will create new postdoctoral opportunities at each of the participating institutions. The online Certificate in Afro-Latin American Studies that the Consortium institutions have been offering for years (we’ve had 634 students since 2019) is going to grow even more and will begin offering specialized courses for professionals in different fields. We will develop digital resources to support educators throughout the region, to make it easier to include these topics in their lesson plans, to reach younger audiences. And we will translate important books from Spanish and Portuguese into English, to bridge the gap that often separates academia in the global north and south. But our ultimate goal is to grow the field, to add new institutions and working groups, to multiply the courses and academic spaces dedicated to these topics. It is a task that is and can only be collective. This is the knowledge that will allow us to build societies of inclusion, justice and equity.

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MARÍA ISABEL ALFONSO
MARÍA ISABEL ALFONSO
María Isabel Alfonso. BA in Literature from the University of Havana and PhD in Romance Languages from the University of Miami. In her research, she analyzes the cultural dynamics and policies of the 1960s in Cuba. Her book Ediciones El Puente and the Gaps in the Cuban Literary Canon (Universidad de Veracruz, 2016) explores the topic of El Puente, a publishing house that existed autonomously during the first years of the Revolution (1961–1965). Alfonso has published on Cuban civil society, a topic she addresses in her documentary Rethinking Cuban Civil Society (Icarus Films, 2019). She is a Professor of Latin American/Caribbean Literature and the Chair of the Department of Modern Languages ​​at St. Joseph's University in New York.

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